x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Embrace the fighting spirit of Manila with a can-do attitude

Find action-packed history and a modern vibe in the rough but exuberant Philippines capital.

Makati, Manila's skyscraper-dominated business and shopping district. Most of the city's historical attractions are in Intramuros. Reuters
Makati, Manila's skyscraper-dominated business and shopping district. Most of the city's historical attractions are in Intramuros. Reuters

Why Manila?

If Manila was a boxer, it'd be the battle-scarred, crowd-pleasing hero that keeps winning through sheer determination rather than technical proficiency. The capital of the Philippines is chaotic; it was pretty much wiped out by Second World War bombs, and there's no definable centre. Yet it has a fun-loving exuberance that is rare for Asia. The rattling jeepney buses that swarm the streets tell you everything you need to know about the city. They're cramped and possibly not roadworthy, but they're painted in every colour the driver could get his hands on.

The gleaming malls and skyscrapers of the Makati neighbourhood show which way the city is heading, but the Spanish forts and churches of Intramuros and the American twang in the accents nod to two very different colonial pasts.

A comfortable bed

Manila Hotel (www.manila-hotel.com.ph; 00 63 2 527 0011) turns 100 this year but manages to retain a contemporary buzz along with its timeless looks and action-packed history. Pictures show previous guests - from General Douglas MacArthur to Michael Jackson, Rocky Marciano and Jon Bon Jovi - while there always seems to be something going on in the lobby. Double rooms cost from 8,150 pesos (Dh684), including taxes and breakfast.

For a more sanitised experience, head to the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com; 00 63 2 750 8888) in shiny, business-focused Makati. Double rooms (from 9,993 pesos [Dh838], including taxes and breakfast), are classy and spacious. The spa here is said to be the best in town.

Weird, but perfect for families, is Hotel H2O (www.hotelh2o.com; 00 63 2 238 6100). It's part of the Ocean Park complex and the underwater theme extends to the hotel - some rooms have aquarium walls instead of windows. Others look out over the arena for sea lion shows or light-and-sound displays. Bargain room-only rates start at 3,416 pesos (Dh286), including taxes.

Find your feet

Manila is best tackled one area at a time - pedestrian-unfriendly roads and the urban sprawl make trying to string the districts together along one route inadvisable. Many of Manila's highlights are found in and around Intramuros district, however. The logical starting point is Fort Santiago. The crumbling walls of the old Spanish stronghold contain serene gardens, a shrine to national hero Jose Rizal, and some marvellous views of the city from the top of the ramparts. A couple of blocks south-east is Manila Cathedral, the eighth incarnation of a church originally built on the site in 1571. Highlights include the characteristically colourful stained-glass windows and displays explaining the country's unusual history as a colony run by the Catholic Church.

The Spanish influence makes Intramuros feel more Latin American than Asian in some places, and that continues farther down General Luna Street at the San Agustin Church. The oldest church in the Philippines, it was spared the bombing destruction during the Second World War by becoming the Red Cross base.

After exploring the cloisters and the treasures on display in the attached museum, veer west and head through the city walls to emerge in the middle of the gloriously odd Intramuros golf course. It wraps around the walls, offering a green lining, before the chicken run across the snarling roads that bar the way to Rizal Park.

The best cultural attraction, however, is the Ayala Museum in Makati. Only masochists would attempt to walk it there from Intramuros, but for a superbly presented overview of Filipino history, it's an essential detour.

Meet the locals

Rizal Park acts as Manila's communal centre. In among the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, central fountains and pompous monuments, you'll find picnickers, children flying kites and chess players competing for grass space.

Otherwise, head to the hugely popular karaoke bars - there's one on virtually every corner in Malate and Ermita - or Ongpin Street in Chinatown. The latter combines teahouses, traditional crafts and small owner-operated shops that are more suited to conversation than the malls.

Book a table

Sentro 1771 (www.chateaugroup.com; 00 63 2 757 3941), on level two of the Greenbelt Centre in Makati, offers inventive twists on adobo, the classic Filipino dish of garlicky, vinegary chicken (320 pesos; Dh27), and other local favourites, all served in a young and hip setting.

For a prime position for the tremendous sunsets over Manila Bay and seafood plucked live from tanks, Harbor View restaurant (www.harborview-manila.com; 00 63 2 524 1532) has long been a favourite rendezvous. Main dishes cost between 350 and 700 pesos (Dh29 to Dh59).

Shopper's paradise

Filipinos love shopping malls almost as much as they like bursting into song in the karaoke booths all over the city. The Mall of Asia is a giant - big enough to fit an Olympic-sized ice-skating rink and an IMAX cinema inside - but the shopping is better at the Greenbelt Centre. Luxury stores here include top brands such as Jimmy Choo, Prada and Armani, but they're interspersed with dozens of comparatively affordable high-street brands.

What to avoid

Hiring a car and driving around Manila is the stuff heart attacks are made of. Public transport is fairly hopeless, and taxis will get snared in the gridlock, too, but at least they're cheap. Take a good book and prepare to sit in traffic - it's far less stressful than trying to get behind the wheel yourself.

Don't miss

Just outside of Makati, the American Cemetery and Memorial is a sobering, surprisingly peaceful experience in a city that doesn't do tranquil all that well. The 62-hectare cemetery is full of sweeping arcs of headstones either marking the graves of 17,206 soldiers who lost their lives in the Second World War, or inscribed with the names of the 36,282 whose bodies were never found.